Ibram X. Kendi is human. Like all of us, he has light and shadows. Like all of us, he causes pain and experiences loss. In this moment of criticism and exposure, I hope he has a community that can hold him. I wish this for him even as I consider his statement standing behind his decision to lay off staff to support the long-term health of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research. I recognize in his statement a familiar resistance to accepting and learning from the harm that he causes.
For nine months in 2022, I served as the executive director of Kendi’s research center. When I arrived to begin my role, I observed that Kendi and the center were failing. What data did I have to support this assessment? There was significant staff turnover that preceded my arrival. There was the email from a disgruntled professor after I interviewed for the job warning me about an unsafe work environment. I reached out to an outgoing senior-level Black woman at the center, who curtly refused my request to talk. I wondered, what happened to her? What has happened here? Bodies of work were stalled, funders were antsy about productivity, and many on staff seemed relieved that I had arrived. When I completed my one-on-one conversations with each staff and faculty member, I sensed their anxiety, stress, anger, and fear. Throw in the remnants of the pandemic and ongoing racial and social strife, and it was easy to see why this organization was in trouble.
Even with these challenges, the organization had tremendous assets, most importantly a group of people who were emotionally intelligent, curious, committed, optimistic, and antiracist — they had shown up to do the work of dismantling racism. For the first six months of my tenure, they rolled up their sleeves and we began to experiment.
We told stories. We began to make space for people to have a voice — students, administrative staff, program staff, and faculty. We began to play with opportunities to move stalled bodies of work forward. For example, the Racial Data Lab built projects related to felony murder, the health and social safety net, youth justice, reparations, and student loan debt forgiveness policies.
The energy began to shift and morale was on the up. No one was leaving. We looked at the staff’s skill sets, rebuilt the organizational structure, and started seeking people to fill key roles. We built internal grants management systems. Kendi and I began joint leadership coaching. While there is truth in some of the media reports about the culture of the organization, it is incomplete. I disagree that there is nothing to show. In addition to work completed within the center’s amicus brief practice and direct support to organizers on the ground, we took risks to build something together.
Have I experienced loss when I consider the center’s failures? I have. Over time I had lost hope in our society’s capacity to banish racism. So when the scholar and historian of our time on antiracism believed that we could build the infrastructure to match the very sizable one keeping racism in place, I began to have hope again. So, yes, I feel profound loss. We had a thought leader, a committed staff, the beginnings of a theory of change, and the money to get some things done. Right now, whether those ingredients came together to create antiracist change is in question for some. Rightfully so.
I left BU for many reasons. Some personal, some political. But ultimately, I left because I was unable to reconcile my belief in collective effort with the leadership model that Boston University and Kendi constructed, one that BU professor Spencer Piston described in a Boston Globe article, one that I believe is inconsistent with what it will take to banish racism. Piston said, “It started very early on when the university decided to create a center that rested in the hands of one human being, an individual given millions of dollars and so much authority.”
Antiracism work is not one-human-being work. It is collective work. Racist structures and systems are so entrenched, so insidious, that we should never entrust the dismantling of those systems to the ideas and capacity of one person. Antiracism requires collective power building, collective action, and collective dismantling. I know Kendi believes in collective action. I wish he could have flexed to see that collective action begins at home.
The center needed accountability. The provost, who was responsible for supporting Kendi, cannot be fully responsible for holding the center accountable. There are too many perverse incentives, including the need to keep bringing in donor money. Liberation work exists in service to a group or base of people. Unlike most university center boards stacked with wealthy donors, an antiracism center needed a different model for accountability. It needed a model in which those most impacted by the inequities that racism created and continues to create can tell it if it is on the right path.
Finally, the funding community of individuals, private foundations, and corporate giving arms needs to flip its due diligence approach. For small sums of money, the philanthropic sector will pull out its magnifying glass to inspect small nonprofits, including those struggling to pay staff while doing massive systems change work, and then ask them to deliver time-consuming reports and concrete outcomes. Yet for large sums of money to already well-funded institutions, the sector will place the magnifying glass quietly back in its pouch. Donors must align their accountability mechanisms so they make sense for the organizations the donors are supporting.
Behind all the news stories about one man is a group of people, both those who have been recently laid off and those who have been through the center since it was birthed in 2020. Many of them have experienced the repercussions of the leadership model that was cocreated by BU and Kendi. Let’s not forget them. They belong to a community, and parts of that community have activated to provide mutual support and care in the wake of so much grief over the layoffs. This community is an example of liberation in practice. They have engaged in relationship-building and experimented with failure. They have broken down hierarchies and practiced democracy. We will need all of this to build an antiracist society.
My wish for BU and all organizations is this: Take seriously leadership and accountability, especially when it comes to antiracism. This work is too important to be left to chance.
Editor’s note: The center’s racial justice website, The Emancipator, was launched in 2021 with Globe Opinion. Its operations have since shifted to BU, although it is published on the Globe’s website.
Yanique Redwood is author of “White Women Cry and Call Me Angry: A Black Woman’s Memoir on Racism in Philanthropy.”